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China has unilaterally established a national fisheries zone in the international waters of the South China Sea, policed by a newly formed Coastguard. At first glance this seems as an attempt to de-militarise disputes in the region, when in fact it frees up the PLA Navy to pursue their blue water ambitions.
The most recent series of incidents in the South China Sea may appear innocuous to many observers, since the premise for their action lies with fisheries policy and legislation. However such issues have determined a turning point in a region’s maritime security before, see for example Somalia’s fisheries claims in the 1990’s which many believe are the key causational factor in the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and latterly the Indian Ocean.
When China issued maritime legislation on 29 November 2013 and enacted it just thirty-one days later, the Chinese effectively extended their domestic maritime law into an area of the South China Sea that extends almost 1.5 million square miles, over half of the South China Sea’s total sea area, and importantly includes the majority of the nine-dashed line disputed area. By comparison, the Mediterranean Sea runs to 980,000 square miles. The Chinese are not known for their deep concern for fish stock protection and protein preservation policies, but the legislation they issued for this area required all non-Chinese flagged fishing vessels to provide details and seek permission for their activities from the Chinese authorities in Hainan.
Initial US Government concern was expressed over the potential implications for freedom of navigation which would almost certainly have caused a more focused response, but Beijing subsequently made clear that the legislation only held implications for fisheries vessels and not on either commercial vessels or naval forces of any state. This has left both the US and other regional states with time for a more considered response. Despite this, there is significance in the Chinese actions beyond an inevitable souring of relations with local non-Chinese fishermen.
Even if the Chinese law was purely procedural it would establish a precedent in international law and would, if unchallenged, enable the Chinese administration to claim rights over the disputed seas within the nine-dashed line area, their resources and those islands within them. It is therefore no surprise that the governments of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all publically protested the actions of the Chinese and are expected to use their own naval assets to contest the zone.
Apparently however the first incident between the Chinese maritime security agencies and fishermen has already occurred when, according to Vietnamese fishing blogs, a collision occurred between a Vietnamese fishing vessel and a Chinese maritime patrol boat on 3 January 2013 in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands.
China’s New Maritime Coastguard: De-Militarising China’s Claims
The Chinese Maritime Coastguard enforcing these actions is relatively new after President Xi amalgamated the disparate agencies which had previously held responsibility for maritime security within the 12 mile limit along China’s coast. The morphing of these agencies brought together their considerable assets under a single organisation with constabulary responsibilities. In March 2013, Beijing placed the new agency under the State Oceanic Administration, itself a part of the Ministry of Land and Resources.
Although control of the coastguard has been wrestled from both the People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of Public Security, this does not necessarily make them any less of a paramilitary force. Their structure and control may well be police-based in ethos, but their capabilities retain a hard edge well illustrated by their own two Jianghu Class frigates. Those capabilities were exercised at the start of January 2014 in a series of drills which mobilised some fourteen ships and more than 190 personnel to enforce the new fisheries legislation.
It was this coastguard activity that resulted in the collision at sea with the Vietnamese trawler two days later. The Chinese Coastguard is certainly exercising its newly found legal basis and expanding its area of operations, which during 2013 was focused in the East China Sea against Japanese Defence Force and Coastguard units. The PLA Navy appears to have been taking a less visible role in maritime security close to the Chinese coast.
PLA Navy Left to Pursue Blue-Water Ambitions
Military and Diplomatic sources in the region report that PLA Navy activity in 2013 was markedly down in the South China Seas against years 2009 - 2012. This could be interpreted as a more conciliatory approach from President Xi in an effort to build better bilateral relations with other neighbouring states. However it is also possible that the priority of Chinese maritime tasks took place in the East China Sea, notably with both Japan and the United States Navy. The emergence of another maritime force to take over constabulary duties in the South China Sea allows the Chinese administration to re-commence their policy of claiming those waters in the long term whilst ensuring that contests to the claims remains clear of militarised responses; an important facet on the international stage. This is a deft move by President Xi and reflects a better understanding of the political environment in which he is operating with other national powers.
The use of a coastguard in this role is not new, certainly the US Coast Guard (USCG) is the best equipped and trained in maritime security agency globally. The Chinese Maritime Coastguard trains and co-operates with them as part of the North Pacific Coast Guard Agencies Forum. The USCG is not commanded by the Department of Defense in peacetime, but rather the US Department of Homeland Security which allows the US military to both focus on war fighting and constabulary duties at range (indeed the US Navy is not authorised to undertake certain constabulary duties as part of the US constitution).
This appears to be a similar doctrine to which the Chinese are now employing with their own maritime forces. Previously, constabulary roles in the South and East China Sea areas were conducted by the PLA Navy. The revised tasking for the Chinese fleet in 2013 included a requirement to establish greater presence in the East China Sea and in running multiple ship trials for their newly built capital assets, as well as longer deployments in areas further afield.
Ships cannot be everywhere at once and even the significant mass of the Chinese navy are not able to manage all these things simultaneously. Pressure from Japan, South Korea and the US Navy in the East China Sea, as well as political commitments to contribute to maritime missions off Syria (removing chemical weapons), and Somalia (in counter piracy operations) are no doubt stretching the PLA Navy both in manpower, logistics and ships. The formation of a coastguard to undertake maritime security operations is thus a sensible and efficient methodology of achieving all these missions together. As the Chinese Coastguard gains more experience in constabulary operations, it will free the PLA Navy for more focused war fighting roles, and longer blue-water deployments will be a sure-fire pattern for 2014 and thereafter.
So it seems that the new fisheries legislation of the Hainan provincial administration extending across the disputed South China Seas area is more of a resurgence of old policies, but differing in strategy and planned execution authorities. Such a change has long been called for whilst the stretched Chinese forces are engaged on all fronts not just with the United States Navy, but also with forces from South Korea and Japan. It is the emergence of this new organisation which is an indication of a possible divergence of roles for both sea-going services; a factor that other navies will wish to watch carefully.
Peter Roberts is Senior Research Fellow, Maritime Studies, RUSI.
 Tuoitre News, Vietnam
 ‘China Naval activities Raised at APEC’, Japan Times, 5 Oct 2013, and China Finds a Gap in Japan’s Maritime Chokepoints, TIME.com 18 July 2013.